The Great Gatsby

Northern Ballet's timely adaption of F Scott Fitzgerald's classic novel ultimately lacks emotional punch

It is not difficult to understand why the endlessly searching imagination of Northern Ballet's artistic director, David Nixon, would have been preoccupied with F Scott Fitzgerald's great novel since his high school days in Chatham, Ontario.

Nixon has clocked up a raft of memorable new works for the company since he joined in 2001, Wuthering Heights, Dracula, Cleopatra, Madame Butterfly and Beauty & the Beast among them. But in interviews leading up to his current world premiere, one gets the distinct impression that this is, for him, one of the most precious to date.

He has gathered around him a ferociously gifted creative team, which allows pride of place to the eminent composer, Sir Richard Rodney Bennett. Selected pieces from his sophisticated, wide-ranging canon of work have been meticulously collated, compiled and re-orchestrated to form a multi-faceted soundscape.

This interpretation elevates the doomed love story between Jay Gatsby and Daisy Buchanan onto a soaringly cinematic scale. Sadly, Bennett did not live to see such exciting new life breathed into his work, but now, just a few brief months after his death, this thrilling reincarnation stands as a fitting tribute.

As a piece of literary fiction, Fitzgerald's heady portrait of the carefree upper echelons of 1920s American society has long been a gift to creative artists working in other genres. Nixon has pulled off something of a coup in pipping at the post Baz Luhrmann's lavish, eagerly ancipated new screen version, starring Leonardo di Caprio and Kerry Mulligan and due for release next month.

Indeed, Nixon himself was inspired by Francis Ford Coppola's iconic 1974 film, in which the gilded couple were played by Mia Farrow and the louchely handsome Robert Redford.

Regardless of genre, however, it is a piece which is notoriously difficult to adapt effectively. Nixon has given himself a particularly daunting challenge in opting to translate into dance language, a novel whose hallmark is the exquisite written expression of intangible emotions, perceptions and social commentary.

Consequently, without prior knowledge of the story, it is highly likely that audience members could feel stranded in its unfolding, worldess plotline, regardless of how gorgeous and polished the finished piece may look or sound.

The main events of the novel emanate from the love of Jimmy Gatz (here danced by Jeremy Curnier), a young, penniless soldier from North Dakota, for the effervescent Daisy Fay (charmingly danced by Michela Paolacci), daughter of a wealthy Midwestern family. But when Jimmy is called up for wartime military service, Daisy reverts to her own 'old money' milieu by marrying successful businessman, Tom Buchanan.

Kenneth Tindall's muscular, glowering Tom is an ambitious, domineering figure, who sees no conflict in balancing outwardly respectable family life against a clandestine affair with Myrtle Wilson, the sassy wife of car mechanic, George – rendered by two singularly vivid performances by Victoria Sibson and Benjamin Mitchell respectively.

After the war, through a variety of dubious contacts, Gatz re-emerges as Jay Gatsby, an enigmatic self-made man, well known for hosting lavish parties at his palatial mansion. Beneath the thinly veiled veneer of material success, his life seems to have little meaning until his and Daisy's paths unexpectedly cross and the fulfilment of their early love seems, at least to Gatsby, to offer real potential for happiness.

The Great Gatsby

 

The novel's narrator is Daisy's cousin, Nick Carraway, a New York bondsman, newly arrived from the Midwest, who has rented a small house on Long Island alongside Gatsby's opulent pile. The role is suavely danced by Giuliano Contandino but, in terms of characterisation and significance, it feels insufficiently defined and fleshed out.

He makes a real and meaningful contribution to the storyline in Act One, but dwindles and disappears entirely from the abrupt finale, which, in dance vocabulary, simply cannot offer the crucial scenes of inward reflection which lend the book such poignancy. And herein lies the struggle within the piece.

The combination of sights and sounds is to die for – fabulous Roaring Twenties costumes designed by Nixon, John Langstaff's full-bodied orchestrations of Bennett's symphonic works, film scores, jazz and popular songs (played live by the Northern Ballet Symphonia under John Pryce-Jones).

Tim Mitchell's seductive lighting of the vast skies and seascapes of Jerome Kaplan's Edward Hopper-inspired set design, are all brought to life by a cast of talented and dedicated actor-dancers at the top of their game.

In the way that the narrative thread asserts itself briefly before falling away in the second act, so too do the choreographic challenges presented to Tobias Bartley's Gatsby and Martha Leebolt's Daisy. Bartley has matured into an impressive, charismatic presence, whose physical strength and elegant line mark him out as a distinctive performer of real note.

Leebolt demonstrates enviably dazzling technique in a hard-edged interpretation of a spoilt woman, whom nobody, bar the love-lorn Gatsby, could imagine giving up the material advantages of a violent, faithless marriage.

There's no denying that Nixon has made a bold, heartfelt attempt on this handsome adaptation, but for all his and his company's sterling efforts, it's the old book itself that still holds the best cards.

The Great Gatsby runs at the Grand Opera House, Belfast until April 13.

The Great Gatsby